Today I've been thinking back to the very first Earth Day in 1970. I was a senior in high school, and on that day we went over for a program at the new Rogers Environmental Education Center that was being built in my rural central New York town. It was an entirely new concept: an "environmental education center" under the auspices of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, built on property that had once been a state "game farm" raising pheasants, quail, turkeys and other game birds for release on state lands for hunting. During my childhood, this was a place we went for picnics and to see the enormous native trout in the concrete ponds, feed the wild ducks, keeping a safe distance from mated pairs of Canada geese protecting their offspring, and wander around the cages that housed displays of "fancy" pheasants, game birds, and screeching peacocks.
On Earth Day, our class heard about concepts like recycling, sustainability, organic gardening, environmental pollution, and ecology, that were actually relatively terms at that time. The presenter was a charismatic state field biologist named Herm Weiskotten who had been hired as the center's first environmental educator. I loved everything I heard, and admired him, and that summer and for all the summers and some vacations through university I worked at the center as an intern. For two years after graduating I worked full-time as a naturalist and artist/exhibit and graphic designer under the CETA program, sharing an office with Herm, who had become my mentor, teacher, and friend. I was incredibly fortunate to know him and work so closely with him; he taught me a great deal, gave me confidence, and steadfastly encouraged me in my art and my love of the natural world. We went all over New York State together, laying out nature trails -- another new thing at the time -- and talking. I was responsible for sketching and drawing the illustrations for trail guides and exhibits, but Herm and I also shared a great love for native plants, especially the so-called primitive plants like ferns, mosses, horsetails, lichens and liverworts, and we searched together for rare species. During those years I'd work all day, come home, cook dinner for myself, and spend the evening in solitude practicing drawing and teaching myself how to paint detailed watercolors.
The field guide in the top picture was his. He gave it to me after it fell into a stream once when we were down in some gorge looking for limestone-loving ferns. The fern I've laid on the cover has always been pressed between its pages - it's an ebony spleenwort from one of those excursions. I took the book off the shelf today to see if it had Herm's name in it -- it doesn't -- but that's his handwriting inside the back cover: a note about where the species on pg 112 -- the silvery spleenwort, Athyrium thelypteroides -- was to be found.
He was born in England in 1922, orphaned, and adopted by American parents. He died in 1977 of a sudden, massive heart attack in his sleep; we had spoken by phone the night before with no hint of any serious problem, though he had had heart issues for a number of years. Now, almost ten years older than he was when he died, I still think of him nearly every day, and when I'm in the woods I feel his presence; I've sometimes wondered if his was a soul that didn't depart but has always stayed here, whether as a protective spirit or simply because he loved the earth too much to leave. I should write more about him someday -- there are hundreds of stories -- but I'm not sure I will, or really want to.
This warped and water-stained book is precious to me because it's one of the very few mementos I have. I have only a couple of photographs, none particularly good. The first gift he ever gave me was a paperback copy of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac; he also gave me a large book of American Wildflowers. But mostly we constantly brought each other interesting things we'd found: fossils, rocks, bones, wildflowers, feathers. Not long before he died, he showed up at my parents' home at the lake -- I had moved to New England -- with a couple of Iroquois arrowheads that he said he wanted to give my mother and me - he loved to roam the freshly-plowed fields by the Chenango River after work, and often participated in archaeological digs in the area, looking for artifacts. But that's it. The most important things were the intangible ways he helped me discover and be myself.
How would Herm feel about our earth today? I hate to even think about that question. He'd be happy for the strides we've made in sustainability, recycling, organic farming and local food, waste disposal, and certain resources that have been protected and cleaned up. He'd be sick about the decline of species, blatant disregard for biodiversity, about genetic engineering, continued pesticide overuse, and all the abuses of creationism and non-science -- but most of all about climate change. He would despise the politicians and their wars, deplore religious fundamentalism of all kinds, and be dismayed about the refugees. He'd also be sad to see that New York State has closed all their popular and well-attended environmental centers, which educated two generations of students and teachers, for lack of funds and, frankly, lack of political will and commitment.
So much of my art and spirit spring from nature, my first and purest love. In much of my work, I realize I'm simply trying to say "Look!" with the same wonder and appreciation I did when leading people on nature walks, years ago. I was in love with the natural world even when I was a little girl; my mother and grandmother and aunts loved the outdoors and knew a lot about it. But it was Herm who gave me greater knowledge, a voice, and new ways to communicate what was inside me, and what was important. I thought I wanted to be a field biologist myself, for a long time, but my creative side won out; that's fine. But there's so much work to do, and so little time left; I feel the urgency, and the call to try harder -- those of us who are still here.